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Dropping The Bomb On School Codes

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While Ratliff operates like a conspirator plotting his government's overthrow, he is just one of a growing number of politicians using blunt tactics to try to reform state education laws. Gov. Pete Wilson of California announced plans in January to replace the state's entire education code by 1997. Soon after, Gov. John Engler of Michigan announced that he, too, would seek to abolish his state's tangled body of school laws and construct an alternative.

Both governors argued that the best way to decentralize education is to start from scratch. But as simple as that may sound, the road from rhetoric to reality could run through a minefield of tough questions about the benefits of local control and the hazards of an all-or-nothing approach.

As policymakers at both the federal and state levels aim to streamline government, education codes are an easy target, observers say. In Texas, for example, a law still on the books prevents school employees from joining "bunds,'' the pro-Nazi Germany groups that formed in the United States in the 1930s. Another three chapters of the code regulate types of school districts that no longer exist.

In California, the school code consumes 11 of the state's 28 volumes of law. In his recent State of the State speech, Governor Wilson noted that its more than 7,000 pages "have prescribed everything from how many electrical sockets must be in each classroom to how many fruit trees can be on a school campus.''

"It's really quite a monstrosity,'' says Maurice Ross, assistant dean of the education school at the University of Southern California. "The detail and prescriptive nature of the law are unbelievable.''

Critics like Ross contend that legislative excess has turned state codes into regulatory beasts. In California, lawmakers introduce some 2,000 education bills each legislative session, a direct result of their control over most of the funding for the state's schools. As Ross puts it: "If they have the money, they call the shots.''

Once laws are on the books, they often become sacred cows to special interests and cannot be peeled off. Isolated attempts at reform rarely crack the calcified codes and regulations. "The key is to do it all at once,'' says Brad Hurley, a former Tennessee education official who helped cut out 3,700 regulations imposed by the state school board. "If you do it single-shot, you'll get nit-picked to death.''

Texas officials set the stage for a new code by passing a "sunset'' provision that will automatically abolish the old code on Sept. 1 of this year. State lawmakers, Senator Ratliff says, decided "to hold a gun to our head and make us do something.''

Not surprisingly, this all-or-nothing approach has its critics. They argue that striking an entire code means that good laws inevitably will be chucked with the bad. "If you throw out the whole thing,'' says Lois Tinson, president-elect of the California Teachers Association, "then things that we have fought for so diligently for children over the years may go down the drain.''

Gordon Ambach, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, points out that massive deregulation may simply create bloated reform-resistant bureaucracies at the local level. "The more that you put power in the hands of the district,'' he says, "the more you have to have administrators there to handle it.''

Some governors already seem to be learning that backing up their bold promises will be tough. In Michigan, Engler's proposal to replace the education code with one that emphasizes local roles and responsibilities may violate a state constitution requirement that the state oversee its public schools. But given the success Engler and Michigan lawmakers had abolishing and recreating the state's school-finance system, few are willing to count the governor out as far as the education code is concerned.

"Michigan has the history,'' says Ray Telman, associate executive director of the Michigan Association of School Administrators. "We dropped a bomb on school finance, and that worked, so who knows.''

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